Since taking office, President Donald Trump has fired no fewer than 14 high-level staffers, including former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former chief strategist Steve Bannon. With so many vacancies in the West Wing, the Hill is reporting that members of Congress aren’t certain to whom they should reach out at the White House ahead of a particularly difficult stretch of the legislative calendar.
Priebus and Bannon reportedly handled “the bulk of outreach” to Congress during the administration’s battle to repeal and replace Obamacare. And while many on Capitol Hill like and respect Trump’s new chief of staff, former Marine General John Kelly, he doesn’t have the longstanding network of personal relationships on the Hill that Priebus had.
Some doubt Kelly’s conservative bona fides, and worry that he has aligned himself with “Democrats” like Gary Cohn, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
“Several GOP lawmakers told The Hill they don’t personally know Kelly, and there are questions on the right about whether he’ll be a champion for conservative causes as he tries to restore stability to a White House mired in turmoil.
‘There is great respect for John Kelly but no real belief that anyone else can effectively carry out the Trump agenda until Kelly replaces Bannon with a conservative leader,’ one House GOP lawmaker told The Hill.
Another House Republican added: ‘Kelly is definitely a huge force, but I don’t know him.’”
Of course, Priebus’s former leadership of the Republican National Committee and his close friendship with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan were major assets for the Trump administration when dealing with Congress.
“Before stepping into the chief of staff job, Priebus had spent years cultivating relationships on the Hill as chairman of the Republican National Committee. And while Priebus, a close friend and ally of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), seemed to embody the GOP establishment, he also made a concerted effort to connect with conservatives over the phone or through emails and text message.”
And despite Bannon’s threats to create an “enemies list” of lawmakers who opposed Trump, the Hill says his conservative credentials make him a natural ally to the House Freedom Caucus. (Bannon also once famously declared that he’s “not a conservative” during an interview with the Hollywood Reporter shortly after the election).
“Conservatives on and off Capitol Hill say it’s now paramount that Trump replace Bannon with someone who has true conservative credentials, the president’s ear and a rapport with lawmakers.
They say this is especially true given fears on the right that the West Wing is shifting left and that Trump is taking most of his advice from Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn.”
Some names being thrown around as possible Bannon replacements include Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Jim DeMint, who was ousted as president of the Heritage Foundation in May, and Rep. Jim Jordan, who served as chairman of both the Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee.
Another source told the Hill that Trump isn’t planning on filling Bannon’s job; instead, he plans on enhancing former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway’s role in the West Wing, placing her in charge of outreach to conservatives.
“’My gut tells me it would be Kellyanne since so many people know her and trust her,’ the White House source said.”
Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows said he had worked closely with both Priebus and Bannon, and that their departures weren’t “seen as a positive” for the White House. However, Meadows also acknowledged that Kelly has been “very willing” to listen to conservatives’ concerns.
“In an interview, Meadows acknowledged that their departures “is not seen as a positive for conservatives” but added that “access to the White House on critical issues continues to happen with great regularity.
‘I have found John Kelly as well as other senior staff very willing to discuss issues,’ the conservative lawmaker said.”
Vice President Mike Pence has also been fielding calls from legislators.
“Capitol Hill has become something of a second home for Vice President Mike Pence, a former member of House GOP leadership who has separate offices in both the House and Senate. He became a ubiquitous presence in the Capitol during the healthcare fight, negotiating with individual lawmakers and the various factions of the GOP conference he once led.
Lawmakers have Pence’s cell phone number, but many are hesitant to bother the vice president with minor, everyday matters or to brainstorm ideas. He’s often flying Air Force Two around the country or abroad.”
According to the Hill, rebuilding trust between the Trump administration and Congress is as important now as it has ever been: Relations between the two branches of government have become strained as Trump has lashed out at both Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in recent weeks. According to one recent report, the rift between Trump and McConnell had reached a point where the two hadn’t spoken in weeks.
This could prove particularly problematic ahead of this fall’s gamut of legislative necessities. Congress must approve a new budget or spending resolution to avert a government shutdown, while also raising the debt ceiling to avert a technical default on US debt. Barclays analysts explained how a government shutdown might impact markets and the broader economy in a recently released research note.
Congress must also reauthorize a child-healthcare program that’s set to expire, not to mention Trump’s promised tax-reform bill, which Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have said will be passed by the end of the year.